Advice for creating shorthand references

My books: Legal Writing Nerd and Plain Legal Writing

In legal documents, we sometimes need to create shorthand references for recurring names. For example, its not unusual for a legal document to begin like this:

Plaintiffs Roger T. Howard (hereinafter “Howard”) and Leticia Howard (hereinafter “Leticia” and, together with Howard, the “Plaintiffs” or “Howards”) brought this action against and Southern National Bank (hereinafter “SNB”) and Green Fields Agricultural Company (hereinafter “GFAC”).

That’s a cluttered paragraph, but it’s not unusual. Sometimes lawyers are guilty of “painstakingly (and painfully) shortening every label on the landscape. Such a practice invites ridicule, especially after six or seven names have been defined, names that could never be confused with any others anyway.”[1]

That’s why some legal-writing experts say that creating shorthands with a parenthetical isn’t even necessary.[2] These rebels note that journalists and other writers would never do this:

President Joe Biden (the “President” or “Biden”) is expected to speak at a Memorial Day observance in Delaware this weekend….

I agree with these experts, but I’ve been unable to persuade many lawyers of this view. They say that there’s typically more at stake in a legal document (rights, duties, money, liberty) than in a news article, and legal documents place a high value on precision. So it’s natural that legal documents would contain shorthand references, and in this column I offer guidelines for creating them.

Drop the archaic word hereinafter. Simply give the full term and then the shorthand, like this: Southern National Bank (“SNB”).

Some writers drop quotation marks from the parenthetical, asserting that the defining purpose is obvious.[3] Others retain them—to clarify that the parenthetical is a defining one and not a parenthetical used for some other purpose. My view: retaining quotation marks is harmless.

Don’t create a shorthand and never use it—which happens more often than it should. Of course, it results from one of two causes: the habit of shorthanding everything upon first use without checking for subsequent use; and the result of edits that remove later uses. So as part of a thorough edit, do a search for every shorthand you’ve created. If only one shows up, delete it.

Generally avoid alternative shorthands: Roger T. Howard (“Howard” or “Plaintiff”). It’s like saying, “I’m not going to be careful, so you keep track.” Alternative forms likely arise when the writer use a form document and doesn’t want to search and replace. Do the replacing.

If the client, person, or party refers to itself in a certain way, use that form—don’t make up your own. If Green Field Marketing Company refers to itself as “GFMC,” use that. But if the company refers to itself as Green Field, use that. Don’t create unnecessary initials, although initials have their uses.

Suppose the document mentions Southern National Bank, Southern Mortgage Company, and Southern Real Estate. You could use those full names throughout—it wouldn’t be the end of the world—but you might need initials: SNB, SMC, SRE. And what if two people have the same surname? A common convention is to use given names: Roger and Leticia. Of course, using Ms. Howard and Mr. Howard is fine if the parties are spouses.

Legal writing (“LW”) already abounds with initials and acronyms (“IA”), so when you have a choice, default to words. Naturally, use well-recognized initials (NCAA, CBS) and acronyms (CERCLA, ERISA); otherwise, try to use use words. If the party is Southern National Bank, the short form “Southern” is easier to read than “SNB.”

A final tip: Try to avoid larding the opening paragraph with a half dozen defined terms. It’s actually okay to create a shorthand on the second reference. Use the opening paragraph to set the stage, provide background, or summarize your purpose.

My books: Legal Writing Nerd and Plain Legal Writing

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[1] Karen Larsen, The Miss Grammar Guidebook 42 (Oregon State Bar 1994).

[2] Stephen V. Armstrong & Timothy P. Terrell, Thinking Like a Writer: A Lawyer’s Guide to Effective Writing and Editing 268 (2003); Howard Darmstadter, Hereof, Thereof, and Everywhereof: A Contrarian Guide to Legal Drafting 139 (2002).

[3] Louise Mailhot & James D. Carnwath, Decisions, Decisions: A Handbook for Judicial Writing 37 (1998).